Crime fiction is something of a Cinderella in the world of literary prizes. “Literary fiction” gets the gongs because prize juries think that crime writers are amply rewarded by being popular; but this viewpoint ignores the fact that much of the best contemporary writing is found between the hard covers of crime novels. (This has been going on for decades of course; as Kingsley Amis wrote long ago, “John D. MacDonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?”)
Happily the organisers of the British Book Awards — better known to many of us as the Nibbies — have decided that crime fiction has been under-represented when the laurels have been handed out in the past, and have decided to give the genre a boost this year by introducing for the first time a Crime & Thriller category. At least one crime writer will walk away with an award at the prizegiving ceremony on May 8.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for any newly published author is how much hard work is required from a whole team of people to make a book a hit. We judges of the Nibbies are asked to take into account not just the quality of the writing but the way in which the whole publishing process has contributed to the book’s success.
We might salute the shrewdness with which an editor has spotted a new author whom the public are crying out for — even though they might not know it yet; the ingenuity of a publicity campaign; and, particularly important in a world in which the prevalence of e-readers can make literature seem like a disposable commodity, the physical appearance of the book. (Here is a case where we must, at least partly, judge a book by its cover; but don’t so many book-buyers do the same?) As the organisers put it, the Nibbies “uniquely honour not just the author and illustrator of a title but the entire publishing team.”
I was delighted to judge the Crime & Thriller Nibbie, along with bookseller turned outstanding debut novelist Joseph Knox, librarian and literary scout Sandy Mahal, the gritty (on the page) and charming (in real life) crime writer Dreda Say Mitchell, and Sheila O’Reilly, who runs the fabulous bookshop Village Books in Dulwich.
The six books on the shortlist were an eclectic bunch, but they all have that elusive wow factor that has made them a hit with readers. Claire Mackintosh’s I See You tapped into her readers’ everyday experiences by showing that something as mundane as the daily commute can be fraught with peril if you attract the attention of the wrong people. By contrast, few of us can readily identify with the experiences of a group of cardinals gathered to elect a new Pope, but in Conclave Robert Harris makes ecclesiastical in-fighting absolutely gripping.
Some of the books do what crime fiction does better than any genre and dramatise the stories that lie behind the news headlines. Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be a family member of someone accused of committing a horrible crime? Or what drives the teenage boys who join gangs to do terrible things? Then pick up, respectively, Fiona Barton’s The Widow and Bill Beverly’s Dodgers.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who returns for his 21st ball-busting outing in Night School, could see off Paul Morris, the lying, spongeing, washed-up writer who narrates Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, with all four limbs tied behind his back. But when it came to this competition, I can tell you he had a real fight on his hands.
As to which of the six will emerge victorious: all will soon be revealed.
Jake Kerridge is the crime fiction critic of the Daily Telegraph. The winners of the British Book Awards will be announced on 8th May. For the full shortlist and other information, please visit: http://www.thebookseller.com/british-book-awards